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Preparing for a future of augmented reality

An image of Osma.ai, an augmented reality art project in which a terrarium is watered based on how many likes its AI-generated selfies get on Instagram
An image of Osma.ai, an augmented reality art project in which a terrarium is watered based on how many likes its AI-generated selfies get on Instagram. Photo: Ina Fried/Axios

There are technology breakthroughs still needed before we get to strap on a pair of affordable, lightweight augmented reality-glasses with all-day battery life that seamlessly overlay information over an unobstructed view of the real world — but the time to start preparing for that future is now.

Why it matters: Augmented reality offers a range of enticing possibilities, but also will raise fresh concerns about privacy, advertising and just how much we want our lives to revolve around constant connectivity.

Driving the news: A pair of events this week served to illuminate and highlight the possibilities and the potential pitfalls.

  • The Augmenting Cities conference brought together civic leaders, academics, tech leaders and students in Oakland for 2 days of imaging how AR and play could make our world a better one.
  • Adobe's Festival of the Impossible art exhibit in San Francisco showed, in fanciful and provocative form, how digital technologies are leaping off the screen and blending with human experience.

The issues we will face

Privacy and the AR cloud: While some truly powerful games and utilities can be built once the world is mapped in 3D space, using them could mean giving up a lot of personal information, especially if the companies assembling those maps don't do so responsibly.

AR beyond glasses: We tend to think of AR in the form of glasses, but many believe audio will play a big role in our AR future, especially in the near term. This is already here in some forms, such as Siri or Alexa on earbuds.

  • You can also see it in projects like Duncan Speakman's Only Expansion, on display at the Augmented Cities conference. The headphone-based experience confronts listeners with what their physical space might sound like in the years to come due to the effects of climate change.

The technology is coming: The industry isn't yet ready to deliver a dream headset, but early devices are already here, with more promising ones likely next year and true consumer-ready products possible by 2021.

Inclusion matters: A big topic at Augmented Cities was not just when the technology will be ready, but also who will have access to it.

  • Some of the most powerful applications of augmented reality could lie in making cities more accessible or helping the poor find healthy food options. But much of the industry's energy goes toward apps for the wealthy who can afford the latest technology.

These experiences will use a ton of data: That's good if you are a cellular carrier trying to figure out what to do with a 5G network, but maybe not so good for those worried about tech's carbon footprint.

  • "It's going to be important for industry and the public to reckon with the environmental costs associated with data transfer and storage," said USC professor Jeff Watson, who attended the Augmenting Cities event. "The internet already has a big carbon footprint, and calls for the increased data-fication of everyday life need to be put into conversation with the grim realities of the onrushing climate catastrophe."

Go deeper: Facebook charts a path toward a more social virtual reality